From Autonomy to Solidarities: Transnational Feminist Political Strategies

Manisha Desai. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

In this chapter I use a transnational perspective to examine feminist political strategies used by women around the world in the past fifty years. I do so by focusing on three arenas: (1) the redefinition of politics: what constitutes politics and political issues, the nature of political activism, and the changing political discourses from feminism to human rights; (2) the nature of feminist politics: its autonomy vis-à-vis the state, political parties, and other social movements;and (3) the sites of political activism from the personal to the familial, local, national, and transnational. In each arena, I highlight the historical and diverse nature of the debates, the transnational flows of feminist politics, and the successes and limitations of feminist political strategies.


This chapter presents a transnational overview of feminist political strategies of women’s movements, primarily in India and the United States,1 that spans the second half of the twentieth century. I highlight the key debates about what constitutes feminist activism and effective strategies. My location in an academic institution in the United States and work on the women’s movements in India and around sites such as the UN and the World Social Forum mean that I draw primarily from academic and activist sources published in English in the United States and English, Hindi, and Marathi sources from India. I do not endeavor to present an exhaustive discussion of all political strategies used by feminists in the two countries, but rather have chosen to focus on three that are key. They are (1) broadening the definition of ‘politics’ to include issues relegated to the ‘private realm’ and developing autonomous women’s organizations, (2) working in and against the state, and (3) gendering political discourse and building coalitions and networks with women’s and other movements locally and transnationally.

The above mix has led to rethinking the nature of strategies in the social movement literature. As a variant of an ‘old social movement’ interested in transforming society (not necessarily taking over the state) and a ‘new social movement’ involved in identity formation and practising its values and visions. Feminist movements have used multiple strategies from both old (in and against the state) and new movements (redefining and gendering politics). Hence, the literature on women’s social movements has moved away from elaborating effective strategies to recognizing the need for multiple strategies based on context and purpose and addressing the varied consequences of different strategies.

The main feminist political strategies can be grouped as (1) making women’s personal issues political in autonomous women’s organizations, (2) developing policies and taking action both in and against the state, and (3) building coalitions and transnational networks. As I will show, the consequences of the three kinds of strategies have been mixed. They have made the issue of women’s inequalities central to public debate, created new organizations and organizational practices, led to legal reform, and changed public and private understanding of the gendered divisions within social relations and institutions. Despite significant and wide-ranging changes, women still lack power in most economic, social, and political institutions as well as access to and control of material resources. To further women’s structural empowerment in the current context of neo-liberalism, religious fundamentalism, and increasing militarism, we need a neo-radical politics that can combine more effectively the ‘old’ and ‘new’ politics.

The Personal is Political: Developing Autonomous Organizations

Beginning in the late 1960s and 1970s, there was a resurgence in feminist women’s movements around the world. A major contribution of the feminist second wave was to redefine the term ‘politics’ to include issues that were relegated to the private realm. This is best captured in the slogan of the times, ‘the personal is political.’ Issues like violence against women, women’s control over their bodies, and sexuality were articulated as issues of public concern and politics. The opening up of the ‘private’ realm to activism led to the development of numerous kinds of autonomous women’s organizations, including consciousness-raising (CR) groups, self-help centers and service organizations, cooperatives and businesses, and women’s studies centers.

CR groups emerged in the United States in response to women’s experiences in the new left and the civil rights movements, where White women were marginalized by being relegated to kitchen and secretarial duties. In India and Latin America, the CR groups came out of women’s participation in peasant and workers’ movements, where women’s issues were subordinated or considered secondary to the primary issues of class. The experience of subordination led women activists to join with other women to develop feminist principles and processes of organizing on their own behalf. Autonomy was articulated at different levels: analytic autonomy from patriarchy as a concept not subsumed by class, political autonomy from parties and other movements, and organizational autonomy, forming women-only groups. In both the United States and India, the members of these autonomous group were primarily educated women from the dominant social groups: White, middle-class in the United States, and upper-caste, Hindu women in India.

In these groups, women practiced and debated feminist organizational structures and principles of participatory decision-making that eschewed hierarchy and leadership. Later analysts have critiqued this much celebrated ‘structure-lessness,’ and over the years many feminist organizations have also developed hierarchical structures, but most still practice a variation of participatory decision-making, even at the transnational level. Developing autonomous feminist organizations and practices has been one of the enduring contributions of the second-wave feminist movement (Ferree and Martin, 1995; Gandhi and Shah, 1991).

Self-help centers were another kind of organization that feminists formed in countries around the world. While issues of health and sexuality dominated the discussions in women’s self-help groups in the United States, in India the earliest groups dealt with violence against women, primarily rape in police custody, dowry deaths and then wife-battering. In both countries, in response to women’s needs, activists set up women’s centers where battered women could receive emotional, legal, and medical counseling. In the United States (and also in Europe), the self-help centers became more institutionalized as hot lines and shelters and more professionalized both in the state welfare system and outside it. The result was the contradiction of trying to practice non-hierarchical feminist values and principles, but also having to meet state mandates in order to obtain financing. In India (and in Africa, Asia, and Latin America), given the lack of social services in general, many centers became NGOs with financial support from foreign donors to supplement what they got from their governments.

There was a boom in women’s NGOs during the UN International Women’s Decade, 1975–1985, and after the 1995 UN Beijing Conference, when women’s unequal status in all societies gained international attention, and member-states of the UN made a commitment to address those inequalities. Most of these NGOs over the decades have become service providers or gender experts to the state and other donors interested in funding research and programs for women’s empowerment. This trend has led to a depoliticization of women’s movements, as many NGOs are neither committed to feminist practice nor work with women’s movements, but serve merely as service providers (Alvarez, 2000). In addition to these more or less political activities, Europe and the United States saw a proliferation of women-owned cooperatives, such as book stores, cafés, and music stores. Given the lack of capital and consumer power, these cooperatives were not a major trend in other parts of the world. The last decade, however, has seen an increase in transnational fair-trade cooperatives as an alternative to corporate globalization.

An important expansion of feminist activity was the establishment of women’s studies programs in colleges and universities, and outside the academy, research and documentation centers that focused on women’s issues. Both the United States and India as well as many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have such academic and non-academic research centers that have begun to network, as I will discuss in the last section. The UN decade and its accompanying four conferences on women and NGO forums facilitated the establishment of such research spaces by providing visibility as well as resources for institutionalizing women’s issues in the state and the academy. The UN decade, however, was not unproblematic or uncontentious, as I will highlight later. What it did do is bring together activists and academics from the women’s movement with their counterparts in the development movement. They enabled feminists from around the world to confront each other’s assumptions, issues, and differences and facilitated the formation of transnational solidarities and practices which, I will argue, has become the dominant strategy of women’s movements today (Desai, 1999; Moghadam, 2005).

In India and the United States, the early autonomous women’s politics and analysis were seen to reflect the views and issues of middle-class, educated, White or high-caste women. Beginning in the 1970s and continuing in the 1980s, women of color in the United States and Dalit and Muslim women in India began to critique that feminist analysis and broaden it to include issues of race, caste, and religion. Similar questions of inclusion are now being discussed vis-à-vis Indigenous and African women in Latin America. In India, issues of class had always been part of the feminist analysis, as most feminists came out of poor people’s movements, but it was issues of caste and religion that became thorny.

The critique of feminist discourse took place in the academy as well as in movement organizations. Post-colonial feminists, located in US academies but with origins in India and other post-colonial societies, also began to offer a more nuanced analysis of women’s varied social locations and what they might mean for feminist solidarities across those locations. Sisterhood, therefore, could not be assumed but had to be forged in concrete struggles. The critique of early feminism also led to the development of a new generation of autonomous feminist organizations devoted to issues of women of color, Dalit and Muslim women, lesbian women, and transgendered people. This has led to a proliferation of women’s organizations working on multiple issues. Feminists as well as social movement analysts see this as a contradictory development. On one hand, it has meant that more issues are being addressed, but it has also led to the fragmentation of the women’s movement. Despite the emergence of complex intersectional analysis and transversal politics in feminist discourses around the world, the reality of transnational feminist politics has yet to include women from varied social, geographic, and economic locations.

In sum, the strategy of redefining politics and developing autonomous organizations has been extremely effective in pushing women’s issues to the center of public debate and in providing women with safe organizational space to develop political positions and analyses, gain skills and employment, and provide much needed help. But it also tended to isolate women’s issues and politics from other political discourses and organizations. However, feminists were not just involved in developing new identities and organizations, they were simultaneously working through the state machineries as well.

In and against the State

Feminists in India and the United States conceptualized the state simultaneously as the target against which feminists struggle and a site for the expansion of gender equity and women’s empowerment. Feminists worked with the state at various levels, seeking legal reform, promoting policy changes, and gendering state machineries. In both countries, feminists have succeeded in gaining some legal changes for women, like reproductive rights, protection for battered women, pay equity, and anti-sexual harassment and sex discrimination laws. In India, women have also succeeded in passing legislation to criminalize dowry murders and prevent sex-selective abortions.

Following the UN decade and the 1995 UN World Conference in Beijing, many women’s movements used international agreements to initiate reform at national level, a practice that has been called the boomerang effect (Tarrow, 2003). While most countries still do not have a gender-equitable legal system, many have more legal protection for women than before. Of course, laws on the book are not sufficient, as most women do not have access to the legal system, and most laws are not always implemented. But they represent a normative commitment that is an important first step. The United States, however, has still to ratify the Convention on All Form of Discrimination Against Women and tried, unsuccessfully, to introduce anti-abortion language onto the Beijing Platform at the joint meeting of the UN General Assembly and the 49th session of the Commission on Status of Women, which convened in New York City in 2005 to evaluate the progress of the world’s governments in their commitments to women’s rights. The US government and the women’s movement’s role vis-à-vis the UN has been problematic. The United States sees the UN as a space to help the ‘developing world,’ not a space where it is accountable for its own policies and actions. Therefore, the US women’s movement also does not use the space of the UN to work on domestic gender issues. Most US women’s organizations that do work at the UN focus on women’s issues outside the United States.

In addition to lack of implementation of laws, feminists in the United States and India have realized that they do not have the political support for truly radical legislation. In the United States, despite intense mobilization, the ERA (Equal Right Amendment) failed to be ratified (Ryan, 1992). In India, despite similar mobilization, the government of Rajiv Gandhi passed the Muslim Women’s Bill which would limit Muslim women’s access to the civil courts for matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody among other matters. But as recent research has shown, this bill had unintended, positive consequences for Muslim women. Flavia Agnes (1999) shows how lawyers and judges have interpreted the bill in accordance with local customs and awarded women larger alimonies and child support than warranted in the bill. The rise of religious fundamentalism in both countries has also demonstrated that feminists cannot make claims on behalf of all women in their countries. Women have been active in the fundamentalist movement in both countries, showing the lack of support for feminist issues not just from the established polity but also from women themselves (Klatch, 1987; Sarkar and Butalia, 1995). That has made it necessary in both countries for feminists to reach out to supporters, both men and women, in other progressive movements.

Reforming legislation, however, has not been the only strategy of the women’s movements in relation to the state. Feminists have also worked to establish women’s commissions at the state and national level in both countries and, through these, have had some success in effecting policy changes (Stetson and Mazur, 1995). In India, the National Commission on Women, along with other committees and activists from the movement, has been instrumental in gendering a lot of public policy discussions. During debates on the 2005 budget, the finance minister made a commitment to undertake a gender budget analysis. Writing about feminists employed by the Australian welfare state, Hester Eisenstein (1995) demonstrates that feminists can make a progressive difference in policy design and implementation when located in strategic positions within the state bureaucracy. She argues that feminist bureaucrats or ‘femocrats’ helped place feminist issues on the political agenda and established ‘a range of feminist institutions funded by governments’ in Australia during the early 1970s and later 1980s. However, feminists located within state institutions are also constrained in their ability to counter the disciplining function of social policy and the depoliticization of their advocacy roles (Naples, 1998b). Other research has shown that when there is a mobilized women’s movement that can pressure the state, feminists within the state can be more effective (Stetson and Mazur, 1995). The success also depends on the extent to which women within the state feel responsible to a women’s movement.

As the above discussion suggests, feminists have been successful in reforming legislation that directly relates to women’s issues, such as violence against women and health and reproductive issues, although these are constantly being threatened in the United States under conservative administrations. Feminists have been less successful when politicians view issues as ‘general,’ such as welfare reform in the United States, which was not considered a women’s issue but an economic measure to put people to work. Similarly, in India the Muslim Women’s Bill was seen as an issue of religious freedom, even though it would discriminate against Muslim women.

Women need greater political power to act effectively in the arena of formal politics as well as new political arenas. Although feminists have struggled with the idea of quotas for women in government, many countries have begun to use political quotas for women. India passed legislation reserving 33 per cent of seats in local elections for women, but the bill for the national level is stalled in parliament. In the United States, there have been many groups and caucuses that have supported increasing the number of women in power, but they have not taken up the issue of quotas. A recent comprehensive analysis of the issue of quotas for women around the world found that how the quotas were implemented, the discourse surrounding it, and the relationship of elected women to women’s movements shaped how effectively women in power could bring about gender equity within the government (Dahlerup and Freidenvall, 2005; IDEA, Clearly, this is an issue that has to be addressed by feminists all over the world if they are to gain the political support they need to eliminate gender inequality.

Gendering Politics, Building Coalitions

Another strategy that women have followed to further gain political support is through gendering political discourse and forming alliances with other movements. Even as feminists were forming autonomous organizations, they were also developing analyses to gender the discourses of other movements. In the United States, women of color and lesbians forced White feminists to first broaden their own gender-based discourse to include issues of race, class, and sexuality (Moraga and Anzaldúa, 1981). Early socialist and Marxist feminists had tried to integrate gender and class analytically, but there were few feminist organizations that were consciously diverse on class. There were, however, many community-based movements of poor women, White women, and women of color, who were organizing around housing, welfare, and other issues (Naples, 1998a). These groups enabled feminists to gender other political discourses (Gender & Society, 1999). They argued not only that feminism was about ‘women’s issues’ but that all issues like capitalism, militarization, colonialism, poverty, environmental degradation, among other oppressions, must be understood through a gendered lens (Enloe, 1990; Omvedt, 1993; Sen, 1990). They simultaneously argued that issues associated with women, such as child care, reproductive rights, and adequate food, have profound effects on all members of households and communities regardless of gender.

While feminists have successfully gendered political discourse, at least at an academic level and among social movements if not at the level of political parties, their efforts at coalition building have not been as successful. Early coalition building began with other women’s groups nationally and then, during the course of the UN decade for women, transnationally (Desai, 2002). Networks became the organizational expression of this coalition-building activity. As Valentine Moghadam (2005) shows, there are many transnational feminist networks across issues and regions that have emerged since the 1980s. Most of these networks are composed of educated, middle-class women from the North and the South. Much of the actual networking involves sharing information, research, advocacy, and support or ‘communicative power.’ Unfortunately, these networks often reproduce inequalities among women within countries and between countries, especially when the networks are funded by private donors or the aid agencies of Northern countries, as many are. Analysts such as Amrita Basu (2004) argue that transnational feminism is a new version of 1970s’ ‘sisterhood is global’ feminism; it, too, was composed of a particular group of women but purported to make claims on behalf of all women.

But in addition to such elite networks, there are also networks of grassroots movements, such as GROOTs (Grass Roots Organizations Operating Together) and Women in Informal Economy Globalizing and Organizing (Batliwala, 2002). These networks bring together poor women and men who have been impacted by globalization to develop strategies to confront its forces. Most of these networks work in partnerships with NGOs and academics to gain funding for their work. Grass-roots networks have succeeded in bringing poor people’s claims to the political table and establishing their members as knowledge experts with solutions to their issues, not just as victims of globalization. However, within institutions of global governance, such as the UN and the World Bank, their radical language is depoliticized into programs such as gender mainstreaming or participatory governance while the policies that lead to marginalizing the poor continue. In India, the major networks of the women’s movement are the National Network of Autonomous Women’s Groups, which was organized in 1985, and the National Alliance of Women, which emerged after the 1995 Beijing Conference. These networks have enabled women’s organizations in different parts of the country to communicate and work together. Like the UN conferences, their meetings have been contentious, with women from different parts of the political spectrum disagreeing over strategies. In the United States, while there are many coalitions of women’s movements, there is no overarching network.

In addition to networking with other women’s organizations nationally and transnationally, feminists have also formed coalitions and alliances with other movements (Keck and Sikkink, 1998; Naples and Desai, 2002). In India, among the major coalitions are the National Alliance of People’s Movements, which works primarily on the local impact of globalization, and Slum and Shack Dwellers International, which works on housing rights for the urban poor. In the United States, such coalitions were formed during the struggle against the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Most coalitions of feminists and other activists tend to be issue-based rather than ongoing. They have not incorporated gender issues into the visions of other movements, nor have they worked jointly on strategies of structural change. While early coalition activity was around supporting mass mobilizations and common issues, in the age of the Internet a lot of network activity is exchange of information. Transnational economic issues are symbolically framed as matters of global justice and human rights, which have become the dominant discourses in most movements, with problematic consequences. Human rights discourse has tended to leave the state unproblematized. It focuses on individual as opposed to collective rights, and, most importantly, reinforces a regulative rather than redistributive discourse. Mass mobilizations are an exception and, despite their success in bringing out huge numbers of people, have not altered the course of economic globalization or prevented the invasion of Iraq.

As I have argued elsewhere (Desai, 2005) much transnational feminist activism post-Beijing has taken place in such sites as the UN and the World Social Forum. These spaces privilege popular intellectuals who act as knowledge experts in shaping discourse. There is dialogue among members of diverse organizations, but no substantive changes in national policies or actual redistribution of economic, political, or social power. Coalition building has not translated into political power for the feminist movement at home or in global governance.

Neo-Radical Feminist Politics

Feminist strategies of the last thirty years have been very effective in making women’s issues central to political discourse, but they have not been as successful in altering women’s inequalities. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s report on the implementation of the Beijing Platform noted, the progress towards women’s equality has been uneven. The major achievement the report highlights is the increase in global awareness of women’s inequalities and how new forces like globalization, HIV/AIDS, and armed conflicts contribute to such inequalities, as well as the commitment of national governments and international agencies to address these inequalities. The specific achievements noted were an increase in girls’ education, women’s economic empowerment, women’s expanded political participation, and legal changes. But it also noted the challenges in the areas of continuing violence against women, including in armed conflict, the spread of HIV/AIDs among women and girls, discrimination in employment, decline in sexual and reproductive health, and limited access to land and property. Thus, as Shirin Rai (2004) notes, we have women’s empowerment without real transfer of resources. In the context of neo-liberal globalization, rising religious fundamentalisms, and militarism, many gains that women have made are threatened or have been undermined.

While feminists have recognized the need to ‘reinvigorate feminism as a political project’ (Feminist Dialogues, 2005) and build links with other movements, the strategies they continue to use are a mix of the three outlined above. There is a need for a neo-radical agenda to combat the neo-liberal agenda, which will have to include strategies that deal not only with the question of power at the micro-discursive level but also with the structural power of the state, transnational corporations, and multilateral institutions of global governance. While keeping in mind the lessons we have learnt of our differences and multiple identities, and continuing to use feminist principles of participatory politics, we need to develop coalition politics that directly confronts structures of power so we can have redistributive and not just regulative justice for women.